This week I found myself briefly stranded without a book, and so I to re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The book was published in 2013 to largely negative reviews. Reviewers seemed to have tired of his charmingly counterintuitive self-help busines-speak. Many rightly criticized the book for feeling disjointed … what begins as a motivational talk about entrepreneurs overcoming dyslexia soon migrates to much heavier topics, including child leukemia, civil rights, religious war in Northern Ireland, child abduction/murder, and even the Holocaust. The overall response from readers seemed to be that Gladwell was getting too lofty: better to stick with what you know.
Reading the book in 2017, however, I had a different reaction: the weakness of David and Goliath isn’t the heavy stuff, it’s the fluff at the beginning. (I would include the title among the fluff.) In 2017, the second half of the book is chilling. Nearly every example has profound resonance with the current state of the world. And it seems to go a long way toward explaining why many of the conflicts we find ourselves in are simply unwinnable. It is also a more personal book; Gladwell experienced a sort of personal religious conversion while writing it. Reading it this week, I was struck by how much more human and vulnerable the stories were. The question that rang through the final chapters was, for me, clear: Would you be willing to suffer the way these people have suffered?
Unlike Gladwell’s previous books, David and Goliath is unable to offer up a glib “takaway” that readers can apply at their next board meeting. I suspect a message as bleak as this had no real place in the (comparatively) optimistic world of 2013. But in 2017 the book feels almost therapeutic. It recognizes that there’s no easy hack to fixing certain kinds of conflicts. Instead it offers a different kind of message: it asserts that suffering creates people able to truly risk themselves in order to do what is right. In a world full of so much wrong, we need people like that. Those are what history will call heroes.
I have a lot of readers ask my why I write about characters with missing or dead parents. My jokey answer is “because then no one can ground them.” But the real answer is much more complicated. It has to do with how extreme loss conditions a person–preparing them to endure extreme pain in the future. My characters suffer over the course of their stories, and to me it seems more cruel to put an unscarred and unprepared person into such dire circumstances.
I’m grateful for this book because the next time someone asks the “Why Orphans?” question, I will have a better answer.
UNRELATED: Those who like Gladwell might enjoy his very excellent podcast series, Revisionist History. I especially enjoyed his episodes about the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his exploration of Generous Orthodoxy.
I’ve just finished reading AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is not a book for children. It is a sprawling, virtuosic chronicle about idealistic artists at the turn of the 20th century. The “main” character is based on real-life children’s author E Nesbit (named Olive Wellwood) and the book primarily concerns itself with Olive and her family. I’m a big Nesbit fan, so this book was fascinating.
The thing that most struck me in the book was the fate of Olive’s oldest and most beloved son, Tom. Tom is beautiful and smart and kind and innocent: he is presented as a character from a book caught in a harsh world. The novel shows Tom’s tragic decline as the victim of betrayal: abuse, cruelty, deception, parental infidelity, and (implied) addiction. But none of these are what kills Tom. Instead, it is his mother’s writing that drives him to suicide at the end of the book. Since he was a small child, Tom’s mother has been writing him a special storybook (“Tom Underground”) that was written just for him. As Tom grows up and becomes more and more troubled, these stories serve as a sort of life-line for him. But then his mother mines these private childhood stories in order to create a beautiful and successful stage play. Tom only discovers this on opening night, when he’s watching from the audience. Shortly after, he drowns himself.
The book has many disturbing elements, but this was the most disturbing by far: that the selfishness of Olive Wellwood in her writing harmed her son more than anything else. This mirrors a real-life tradition of authors publishing private stories originally created for/with children: Christopher Robin, Alice Liddell, the Davies Boys, etc. None of those children fared well in adulthood. I’ve never quite understood the nature of such trauma. Like many others, I have always assumed that there must be some other explanation for why the children grew up to be bitter and miserable. (There is no shortage of speculation about abuse.) But Byatt argues in The Children’s Book that commodifying and publicizing the private worlds of a child’s imagination is trauma enough.
Byatt forces readers to ask if the cost is too high. Yes, we have Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but those masterworks came at the expense of real people’s happiness. I consider myself a loving father and husband, and I certainly do no conscious harm to my children. But I have always been unapologetic about using details from real life in my books–it’s all fair game if it serves the story. Byatt’s novel made me reconsider this long-held stance, which is no small thing.
This has been a painful and frightening week for a lot of people. At a time like this — when there such immediate need for change in the world — it feels hard to justify the work of writing children’s stories. What could be more frivolous? In many ways, my book Sophie Quire was about this very question. But in the time since I finished Sophie, the question has only plagued me more. What is the point of a children’s story? It’s a good time to remember GK Chesterton’s words:
I might add something to this, which is that it’s important to write children’s stories so that the next generation can know a monster when they see it.
Last week I flew to DC to sit down with Raymond Arroyo on his show The World Over. I met Raymond at the LA Times Festival of Books last spring, and he’s a great guy who asks good questions … a few of which caught me off guard! Check it out!
A few years back, I helped write a short film for the very talented Ryan Kravitz, who had traded in a successful career as an art director to take up animation. It’s finished and out in the world now (apparently having racked up a ton of accolades), so I thought I’d post the link here.
Just as note as we approach this holiday season: If you want a signed/personalized copy of one of my books, please call Classic Lines Bookshop. They are right down the road and keep my books in stock — which makes it pretty easy for me to swing by and sign things. Just give them a ring and let them know you want a signed book shipped to your address. (If you want it personalized, make sure to let them what name you want in the book!)
Hello friends! It’s been a while since my last update, and that’s because I’ve been busily finishing my next book! It’s a companion to my first novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Here’s the amazing cover, drawn by Gilbert Ford:
The book comes out Spring 2016. It is without question the most monster-filled story I have ever written. Here’s the summary from the catalog:
Whenever I start a new book, I try to put together a soundtrack that makes me feel the way I want the story to make me feel. It’s a valuable tool, because at some point I become sick of my own book, and the songs help remind me what I’m aiming for. Screenwriter John August puts it well: “A good playlist helps you get started. A great playlist helps you finish.”
I thought I’d share some of the songs that helped me finish The Night Gardener. According to iTunes, I listened to these and a few other tracks more than 300 times …
As many of you know, last week was “Children’s Book Week.” Authors were asked to submit 1 min videos talking about books they love. I knew that wasn’t enough time, so I instead made my video into a sort of flashcard challenge:
I got a number of emails from people wanting to know all the book titles, so here’s the master list:
The Little Prince – Alice in Wonderland – The Golden Compass – A Little Princess – Darth Paper – Pinocchio – Rutabaga Stories – Mary Poppins – Bud, not Buddy – The Chocolate War – The White Mountains – The Witch of Blackbird Pond – The One and Only Ivan – Matilda – The High king – Holes – The Higher Power of Lucky – The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles – Five Children and It – The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane – Book of the Dun Cow – Howl’s Moving Castle – Peter and Wendy – The Twenty-One Balloons – Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle – A Wrinkle in Time – Little Women – The Princess Academy – The Graveyard Book – Charlotte’s Web – Dominic – Diary of a Wimpy Kid – The Phantom Tollbooth – My Father’s Dragon – The Neddiad – Anne of Green Gables – Redwall – The Man in the Ceiling – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – Winnie the Pooh – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
A few weeks ago, I did a Creative Mornings talk at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum on the topic of “Childhood.” This was my attempt to connect children’s literature to a broader audience–specifically talking about what it means to work in an industry where the audience (children) are separate from the buyer (grownups). Of special interest might be the anecdote I tell about Tom Angleberger at minute 15 … an event he has since claimed didn’t occur (it totally did). Also, of course, I finish things off with a yo-yo show!
Creative Mornings is a fantastic organization. Find out about the next event in your own city and check it out!